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Wednesday, November 09, 2011  

Abuse and the Elusive Virtue

The striking and horrifying revelations that have come out of Penn State and its football program this week have left people with urgent questions about how such serious abuse could have gone unreported for so long. Quite understandably, a good deal of the questioners have settled, often with hostility, on the figure of Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant and now assistant coach who claims to have seen defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky raping a ten-year-old boy in 2002. By his own account, McQueary left the scene, called his father, and then reported the incident to head coach Joe Paterno, who in turn seems to have kicked the story upstairs to the school's athletic director.

The fallout from this series of events will be severe and wide-ranging--it has already cost the University president his job and Paterno, the dean of college football coaches, his--but McQueary has drawn particular ire for failing to intervene directly in the assault he witnessed. Alan Jacobs blames this cowardice on the culture of football. Sullivan agrees and compares it to the culture of the Catholic Church hierarchy.

There may be something to those sorts of explanations, but as a general rule one should be wary of accounts that exempt the observer from the vice being explained. The unfortunate fact is that it appears to be, even at this late date, rather easy to get away with sexually abusing minors. What McQueary claims to have witnessed is more severe and frankly abusive than most cases of molestation, but it would surprise me very much if the same factors that make it feasible for the kindly neighbor, touchy-feely uncle, or beloved teacher to get away with more or less open misconduct were not at play in this case.

For one thing, we have plenty of evidence that bystanders tend toward cowardice. People really, really don't want to feel responsible or implicated and really, really want to get away from the situation. Not everyone, of course, but ask yourself if you haven't been guilty of this at some point.

For another, child sexual abuse is so foreign to people's expectations that seeing it happen creates cognitive dissonance that people seem tempted to resolve in ways that are not especially helpful to the victims. After the fact, it often turns out that people had suspicions, but they eased them one way or another: I was imagining things, I assumed it must have been innocent, etc. (again this goes for things like fondling or excessive attention rather than actual rape, which seems much harder to accommodate in those ways). And this impulse will be buttressed by strong institutional incentives toward silence, incentives that are well known even outside of churches and D-I football programs.

We have not been especially protective of children, as a society, for all that long. Old habits die hard, and we still tolerate the mistreatment of children in a variety of ways (ahem*). This is by no means to excuse the cowardice of anyone who knew about this abuse and did not take adequate steps to stop it. But courage is a difficult virtue. I hope all of us who have been appalled at the failure of Mike McQueary will bear that in mind the next time--and it will not be so long, in all likelihood--we are called on to protect someone who is vulnerable.

* Seriously, not to keep banging the drum on this, but you should check out the comments to that article. One thing I didn't end up emphasizing is that we've had a pretty smooth trip through the system, all things considered: a young, comparatively normal child, a dedicated caseworker, and medical professionals who were more or less willing to treat the girl. Check out some of the problems other foster parents have to deal with and the callous way we've chosen to treat them.

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 8:50 PM
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